on failing at being a writer

That’s the nightmare of my life: I hate writing, but I can’t help myself. It’s just what I do; it is what I love to do. If that makes any sense. – Elizabeth Wurtzel

Mrs Winterson was having none of it. She knew full well that writers were sex-crazed bohemians who broke the rules and didn’t go out to work.  – Jeanette Winterson

This is a post about failure and acceptance and Make Good Art and who I am in the world. I’m writing it tired and ill, coming off the back of three or four weeks of solid writing-to-deadlines-and-mostly-making them. I’m noticeably a bit crazy, because ironically enough for a freelancer, I really don’t deal too well emotionally with multiple deadlines piling up because I can only work on one thing at once – it breeds the mindset this is going to turn into. I’m writing it because I know this stuff is there in my head and I hope if I write it it’ll make it real enough for me to begin to tackle it somehow.

So, yes. Bearing all that in mind –

I feel like I’m failing. I feel like I’m failing because I’m not doing enough creative writing or even interesting journalistic writing or bloggery. I feel – and have always on some level felt – that I am failing as a writer because I don’t write fiction (much, exactly) although I ALSO feel like I traded fiction in for academia a long time ago and now I’ve lost academia too.

(Sanity notes:

The feeling I’m failing at academia is semi-justifiable. The amount and timing of paid writing work I’ve had has given me the perfect excuse in terms of lack of time and energy to not work on the book proposal/book Routledge have nominally agreed to publish, and I really need to do something about that YESTERDAY because someone else will get there first and it’s already more than a year since I got my PhD. This is a big fucking deal. Yes, Kings are sponsoring me for a Wellcome fellowship and I’m through the first round, but I delayed my full application, again because of the amount of paid work I had to do, and I need in the next few months to pull an application about something I’ve actually never really studied before together, which is going to take serious work, and I’m daunted. How I’m ever going to do that with paid work and with a partner in another city I have no idea, which doesn’t help with this whole ‘failing’ mindset.)

Even though I somehow, improbably, seem to be making a living(ish) at writing – it’s what I do every day, which does by my rather shaky internal definition give me the right to call myself a writer – it doesn’t really feel like it counts. Writing this post does, ironically enough, because writing for me is truth telling, or at least emotional truth telling, and I’m old enough and ugly enough to know that a lot of the time the only way to reliably tell a number of people an emotional truth is fiction. I’ve spent a long time pretending to myself – well, not exactly, but it’s the closest I’ve got for now – that I don’t care really about not writing fiction. And yet when I have a chance (excuse!) to write creatively for someone else, I leap at it – the stories I wrote for OCL’s Betrayers’ Banquet and Cryptofloricon (and, y’know, Cryptofloricon itself) were a huge amount of fun and I loved them and am proud of them and yet even then couldn’t quite bring myself to make time and energy to finish them all. (Crypto I was being paid, so that I was ALLOWED to put effort into.) There was a twine game I really enjoyed doing and got really into (I can’t work out how to link) and never properly finished. There’s still half a long story starring a bunch of my friends as negotiating pirates/highwaymen/eighteenth-century vagabonds which I wrote c.6000 words of and then stopped because I didn’t have time and life got in the way and I didn’t have the fucking application or dedication to say this, making time for this and to finish this matters to me and I am damn well going to find an excuse to do it, this difficult vulnerable easy exhilarating thing, instead of talking to people and hanging out and having sex and all the other myriad forms of human intimacy I use to gain understanding and access human emotional truths that…aren’t writing and are somehow so much easier and yet…not writing.

So I feel like I’m failing, as a writer and as a human being, but for me those two have always been entwined. I suppose, most of all, I feel like I’m failing at being Sasha, and I don’t really want to ignore that any more.

Why is all this? I suppose, way back when when I was slightly (much) less emotionally shameless, fiction told awkward personal truths about how unlovable I was while academia made lots of people praise me and say I was clever – balm to my rather damaged soul. (And yet, in the throes of anorexia and crazy in my second year of uni, I wrote some stories, some of which I still really like. When I had ME, I wrote and never finished half a novel. It’s like a candle that sputters and won’t quite blow out, me and the impulse/application to write fiction.)

It’s not like I don’t get the impulse to write creatively, and sometimes act on it. I have loads of ideas, which sometimes stick around even if I shine the laser glare of actual attention on them and try to write them down (my ideas are shy and shadowy things, and sometimes freeze in direct sunlight.) I write poetry, which I like but which I worry is all beginning to sound the same, and there are at least three novels I’ve sort-of planned in my head and/or in notes and notebooks and hidden tucked-away files – there’s a mid-Victorian queer detective story with bodies outside the Opera House and a lady of the night called Fliss and her languid genderqueer aristocratic companion Val (I’ve written, what, a chapter, plus notes?) – there’s Arbella Stuart solving mysteries at the court of James I, with all the political machinations and emotional complications that ensue (just notes, and a few abortive experiments) – there’s a book sort-of using my beloved grandmother’s life as a springing-off point (entirely notes, but this one isn’t exactly sorted in my head yet, and there’s another post coming about grief for my grandmother and how that feeds into a lot of things that I’ve been mulling for a while, partly because every time I try to write it I start to cry). It’s that I somehow can’t bring myself to take the leap, to make the decision that it’s worth it, that I’m allowed, to sit there and say ‘yes, I want to tell this truth and I won’t necessarily get it right first time but the fact that I want to is enough to make it okay and important for me to do so’ and I won’t turn away to people the way I’ve always tended to up till now.

For me, writing fiction is like having my skin ripped off, slowly – and yet, like that weirdly intimate and slightly crazy scene in Voyage of the Dawn Treader I’ve only just remembered where Eustace (I think) turns into a dragon and Aslan rips all the scaly skin off until only Eustace is left – it feels exhilarating and relieving and utterly, inexpressibly human all at once. Which is impossibly pretentious, but then, Make Good Art is what I *have*. I’ve let a whole bunch of opportunities for being a proper grownup with a stable 9-5 and a decent income pass me by without a scintilla of regret because writing and thinking, I love writing and thinking, I want to do writing and thinking, and yet here I am failing at it. Failing – because I don’t want to try and fail? Or because if I’m just doing it for myself as opposed to any monolithic institutional Other it’s not worth trying for?

Make Good Art.

I don’t write badly, when I write fiction, although never as well as I want. It’s like an old achy muscle I don’t use enough and I know will get stronger and better with time.

Fiction and academia – the two things I’ve always used to define myself – I’m failing at them both. No wonder I feel so fucked up.

About Goblin

Academic, critic, endlessly fascinated; reads, thinks, listens and talks far more than is good for her. Ex-anorexic, ex-ME, excitable, queer, kinky, nosy, mouthy. Purveyor of uncomfortable truths. Talks filth in public. Likes rabbits, old houses with big windows and John Wilmot Earl of Rochester. Needs more sleep.
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5 Responses to on failing at being a writer

  1. I understand the emotions you are going through with feeling like you are a failure and I think that is normal to fall back into that state. But don’t get stuck there. I too have multiple stories and plots that pop into my mind but when I start somewhere in the middle I get stuck and have the same thoughts rush in. Plus there is always the added stress of juggling current opportunities and finding the “time” to dedicate to being creative and practicing that creativity. Let the emotions out, that’s important but don’t be too hard on yourself either.


  2. danohu says:

    I wish we had a world where the psychological side didn’t get so tangled-up in economic struggles.

    i.e. yes, writing is hard. Doing anything you really care about is, in terms of application and emotional couraga. I know I’ve been hiding from the things I care about so long that they aren’t really there any more. All my true-to-myself ambitions have spent so long rotting under protective defensiveness that I couldn’t re-open them even if I got over all my hangups.

    But the difficulty of doing paid work alongside book and fellowship programmes isn’t just avoidance. It’s just plain true that you can’t do everything you want in the time available, and sometimes paying the rent needs to take priority :/

    I hope that in a few months or years you end up financially secure enough to be blocked only by head-demons!


    • Goblin says:

      Oh Dan, you are as always wise and kind and i love you. The protective defensiveness thing – yes, and i’m curious about what,those are for you (i’m not sure enough to guess). But my self-awareness is warring with my demons here – often if i just do my best to clear the clutter and do it i can start – i lose track of the number of beginnings of things i have lying around – it’s committing to finishing things rather than walking away that’s the tricky bit. Protective defensiveness is just it. And i suppose i feel like i’m getting too old to have an excuse for any of this, you know? I should have sorted it out during my 20s, instead of going crazy and getting suicidal and getting laid.


  3. H.E. ELLIS says:

    I know exactly how you feel. Truly.


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